Categories
Conflict Indonesia

Reflections on the Recent Religious Violence in Indonesia

On Sunday (6 February 2011), a mob attacked the home of a local leader of the minority Islamic sect Ahmadiyah in the remote area of Cikeusik in Banten province. There is terrific coverage in The Jakarta Globe, the New York Times reported on it as well, and there are gruesome videos on youtube documenting the violence. The outrage on the Indonesian Twittersphere and facebook was pretty amazing and there was a protest by civil society groups at Bundaran HI yesterday, because this is just the latest in a long string of attacks against religious minorities in Indonesia over the last couple of years. But Indonesian leaders responded with sadly typical and embarrassing statements. The Indonesian president “regrets” what happened and ordered an “inquiry”, the Indonesian Minister of Religion blamed the victims, saying that Ahmadis were proselytizing and brought it upon themselves, and Banten’s governor said she hoped the incident would encourage Ahmadis to realize (insaf) their heresy and return to the rightful path of Islam. She even said that her government is sending religious outreach to the Ahmadi community in Banten to help them achieve insaf.

Now, even as I’m typing, in the district of Temanggung in Central Java province, Front Pembela Islam (FPI, or the Islamic Defenders Front) is attacking and burning down churches, at least three of them. For preliminary coverage in English, click here and here. On Twitter right now, there is good coverage if you follow hashtags like #Temanggung or #TMG

The protests and critiques have been eloquent, and I have very little to add but my support. Instead I’d like to quote in its entirety a kultwit (kuliah twitter), or a set of serial tweets, that my friend Daniel Ziv (@DanielZiv on Twitter) posted mid-day yesterday. His Twitter timeline is often full of biting sarcasm directed at Indonesian politics, celebrity, and society, but yesterday’s meditation on religion in reaction to the violence in Cikeusik, was serious and clearly from the heart. Before it gets buried away in the ephemeral Twitter timeline, I thought I would reproduce it as a complete text, with abbreviations removed. Each line was a separate tweet from Daniel:

Some reflections on yesterday’s [6 February 2011] awful attack on Ahmadiyah sect and what it reminds us about religion.

A passive government bears plenty of blame for the attacks on Ahmadiyah, but we allow far too many excuses for religion itself.

The tragic Ahmadiyah attack is a textbook case of religion’s dog-eat-dog nature; a primitive, medieval pissing contest.

Senseless, irrational things done in the name of something ‘sacred’ are immune to criticism, even by government.

If bicycle riding, atheism or jazz music caused this much evil and injustice, those activities would be immediately banned.

But religion’s inherent self-righteousness and claime to ‘absolute truth’ allows it to get away with anything.

From India and Iran to Ireland and Israel and Indonesia, violence is committed by religious groups. Those are just the countries starting with ‘I’.

“But REAL religion doesn’t tolerate violence,” we’re reminded. Must be a lot of ‘unreal’, deviant religion out there.

Far too often, asserting one’s religious identity involves not inward-looking faith, but one group’s singling out “the other.”

It’s time we recognized religion for what it is: a human social construct, a mix of folklore, culture, myth, heritage, history.

Religion is not the word of God, because there are too many Gods and too many religions for this to be possible.

If we were content with religion as culture/heritage, it could be beautiful. When it’s peddle as “absolute truth” it is dangerous.

One’s religion is entirely random, as accidental as one’s language, communal history and place of birth.

Met a young woman who’d just converted from Islam to Christianity. “So you decided that for 25 years you followed the wrong book?” Her: “Yes.”

Christopher Hitchens famously said: “Religion poisons everything.” Far to often, the faithful prove him right.

Tons of well-meaning believers don’t use religion to impose evil. Tragically, they are a far-too-silent majority.

Religion is too often driven not by faith but by blind faith; not by human morality but by herd mentality.

Faith can and should be deeply personal and introspective, but religion everywhere is externalized, arrogant, coercive.

Religion is mostly a reflection of society’s insecurities. We outsource our anxieties to a “higher entity” when we don’t know how to deal.

Religion is a lazy solution to identity: it sidesteps human complexity and independent thinking, offering rules and structure instead.

Religion co-opts self-evident human morality, re-brands it and makes it exclusive. The ultimate marketing scam.

Here in Indonesia, religious attitudes of “pasrah” and “Tuhan yang menentukan” are the greatest obstacles to our development.

Thanks for listening, Next week (if anyone is still following me) I shall tweet about atheism, which is not a religion. 🙂

People complain about the silent Muslim majority that allows this violence to continue. That is part of the problem, and I notice it daily, but I think it’s appropriate to note that Daniel’s kultwit was retweeted by hundreds of his friends and Twitter followers; he received lots of positive and very little negative feedback. I chose Daniel’s tweets because they were in English, and they go out on a limb beyond Indonesian politics, but there are plenty of well-informed and respected Indonesian public intellectuals that are speaking out too. I think it’s more than just a silent majority of Indonesians failing to speak out against this latest trend in religious violence. In addition to religion’s sacred and dangerous potency that Daniel identified above, there are those who leverage it as a tool for their own ends. It’s a chess game of power politics playing out systematically across the archipelago, using brutal zealots and religious minorities as pawns. It’s the potent combination of religion and power that explains why milquetoast President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his ministers, the police, and the legislators in parliament do not act to protect victims of violence, why public servants like Minister of Religion Suryadharma Ali and Minister of Information Tifatul Sembiring are able get away with statements that blame the victims, and why the majority of Indonesians remain silent in the face of so much outrageous inhumanity.

Categories
Film Club Indonesia

“Obama the Menteng Kid” Hits the Big Screen at Lightning Speed

Book Cover for "Obama Anak Menteng"
Book Cover for "Obama Anak Menteng"

This week the Multivision Plus Pictures production house began filming Obama Anak Menteng (“Obama the Menteng Kid”), a children’s film about President Barack Obama’s childhood years in Indonesia, based on a book with the same title by Damien Dematra. A press conference and selamatan was held at Plaza Senayan in Jakarta on Tuesday 11 May to announce the start of production and introduce the cast. Dematra, who also wrote the screenplay and will co-direct the film, spent five days interviewing 30 people, mostly former classmates, who knew “Little Barry” when he lived in Menteng, a residential neighborhood of Jakarta, between the years 1967 and 1971. He spent another five days writing the book. Multivision plans to complete the shooting within two weeks and release the film in mid-June, to coincide not just with Obama’s (re)scheduled visit to Indonesia, but also with public school recess.

In the space of a few months, the Obama Anak Menteng project—both the book and the feature film—will be complete, perfectly exemplifying the Indonesian phrases asal jadi or asal kelar, a slapdash effort. This is Multivision’s specialty. They are known more for television sinetron, Indonesia’s formulaic soap operas, shooting and editing scenes until moments before broadcast, with insufferable production values. On the big screen Multivision produces low budget horror franchises such as the Kuntilanak and Pulau Hantu films. As an American who has spent years living in Indonesia and (full disclosure) voted for Obama, I am worried this project has the potential to be an irresponsible disservice, if not an insult, to its subject.

Obama’s childhood in Jakarta is an irresistibly compelling subject for Indonesians and Americans alike; so let’s start by giving Damien Dematra and Multivision the benefit of the doubt. In Dematra’s own words:

The point of view in this film is from Obama’s friends. It’s not a true story but based on true events (bukan kisah nyata tapi berdasar kejadian nyata). There are so many perspectives on Obama’s childhood when he lived in Menteng. His friends such as Slamet, Yuniardi, and others have unique stories based on their point of view.

I will grant Dematra some baseline credit for having a terrific idea. Since we probably won’t get anything more from Obama than what he already wrote in Dreams from my Father about his years in Indonesia, then the obvious next step is to talk to the people who knew Obama and his parents. Although Dematra hasn’t fully convinced me on the distinction between true story (kisah nyata) and true events (kejadian nyata), I’m going to generously assume that he’s privileging personal vignettes from the people who knew Obama over a singular biographical narrative. From there one could piece together some episodic memories into an evocative narrative mosaic. Anthropologists love the “partial narrative” and “memory politics.” In the right hands, this could work.

Obama's 3rd Grade Class, 1970 Former Classmates With Obama Good Luck

Dematra’s personal website reveals him to be a champion of Indonesian pluralism in the tradition of Gus Dur, and this is the angle that Dematra wants to take with Obama Anak Menteng: “Obama is an icon of pluralism who proved to the world that although he was different, and from the minority, he could aim for the top and beat the majority.” They are calling this a children’s film, and Obama’s childhood, as recalled through the memories of his Indonesian friends, broadly lends itself to an inspirational “yes we can” narrative of greatness born out of humble and decidedly pluralistic beginnings. Obama himself loves “teachable moments.” His years in Jakarta certainly qualify as instructive material about diversity, pluralism, achievement, and leadership. Again, in the right hands, this could work.

Obama Childhood Photo from Menteng, Jakarta Obama Childhood Photo from Menteng, Jakarta

Little Barry Statue in Menteng, Jakarta

This same sentiment underlies the effort that brought a group of Menteng residents, other Indonesians and ex-pats together to raise money for a statue of Obama as a child that appeared for a few weeks in a public park in the neighborhood. The idea was not to honor “President Obama of the USA” but to celebrate the childhood of “Little Barry” in their own community as an inspirational example of every child’s potential for greatness. And while I believe that a majority of Indonesians are proud of Obama’s connection to their country, the statue was too much for a disproportionately loud minority of ultra-nationalists who argued that public space should not be given over to statues of foreigners, that Obama hasn’t yet proven any tangible contributions to Indonesia to deserve a statue, that there are plenty of Indonesian national heroes who deserve recognition over Obama. A facebook group (TURUNKAN PATUNG BARACK OBAMA di TAMAN MENTENG) opposing the statue garnered more than 57,000 members, and the organizer of the movement filed a lawsuit against the Jakarta municipal government. Within a few weeks the statue was relocated to Obama’s former elementary school. The film will surely inspire a similar reaction. Trash tabloids are already posting headlines like Mengapa ‘Obama Anak Menteng’ Pakai Pemain Asing? (Why is ‘Obama the Menteng Kid’ Using Foreign Actors?) that invite ugly sentiments in the comments section.

The film may also provide fodder for a similar group of disproportionately loud conservative xenophobes in the USA. Dematra claims to have “proof” that Obama prayed to Mecca and practiced Islamic chanting, and he reserves the right to depict that in his film because it is part of the inspirational message he wants to pass along to Indonesian children. As of last week’s press conference, Multivision has not made a decision yet whether to include this in the film, and they recognize the sensitivity of the matter in the contexts of American politics and bilateral relations between the USA and Indonesia.

The Right Hands...
The Right Hands...

I have not read the book yet, so I will not judge the quality of Dematra’s five days research into Obama’s childhood in Menteng. Having looked at his website and the promotional material for the film, Dematra clearly has good intentions. The project is worthy and fascinating. But I keep coming back to the facts: five days of interviews, five days to write a book, two weeks of filming, two weeks of editing. Dematra’s goals may be noble, but I can’t say the same for his workflow, and there’s nothing to recommend Multivision’s own track record of crapass production values. Asal jadi. Asal kelar. These are not the right hands for producing what might have been an interesting and poignant account of one of America’s and Indonesia’s only joint historical figures.

"Mohon Tidak Disentuh..."
"Mohon Tidak Disentuh..."